Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay city council debates for hours, but does not lower 2019 budget

The clock nearly struck 1 a.m. when Thunder Bay city councillors wrapped up their first night of budget deliberations early Wednesday morning.

Talk went until 1 a.m. on the police budget and how to bring tax levy to under two percent

City councillors in Thunder Bay, Ont., debated the 2019 budget until the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 16. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The clock nearly struck 1 a.m. when Thunder Bay city councillors wrapped up their first night of budget deliberations early Wednesday morning.

Council had managed to speak for seven hours, mostly on how to deal with a million-dollar-request from Thunder Bay Police, which would see their budget upped, to deal with recommendations from the OIPRD report.

The million-dollar-ask caused a lot of concern, however, as council recognized the importance of dealing with the issues raised by police, while knowing that funding the request could cause financial issues for taxpayers.

"I don't think I've ever struggled with the police budget as much as I am," said Coun. Shelby Ch'ng.

"And, it really brings to light that policy and documentation comes down from higher levels of government, with no real thought on where this money is going to come from."
Thunder Bay Police Chief Sylvie Hauth, police Finance Manager Jackie Caddo, Police Services Board Chair Celina Reitberger and board administrator Tom Lockwood presented to Thunder Bay city council why the force needs an additional $1M added to its budget on Tuesday night. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Mayor Bill Mauro repeatedly reminded council the funds requested due to the OIPRD report were not mandatory, and council could vote as it wished.

After much debate, council voted to defer any decision on the police budget expansion until the last budget meeting, which is January 30.

Indoor turf

One of the other major proposals at Tuesday's meeting was the creation of a dedicated fund for an indoor turf facility.

"The long and the short of it is to establish a separate reserve fund that I think we can all work to grow," said Mayor Bill Mauro, who proposed the idea.

"[Council will] determine where we can get to with a permanent facilty that I really think should be a legacy for this council."

The concept received unanimous support from council, which saw $4M from the Renew Thunder Bay Reserve Fund earmarked for the building of the indoor turf facility. That money was already allocated in the 2019 budget for the purpose.

Removing the funds to another reserve account, according to Mauro, will create more leveraging opportunties, and send a strong signal to the public that council is serious about the project.

Council also voted to allocate the general portion of the 2019 Municipal Accommodation Tax to the reserve fund, which had not yet been directed to a specific account. The tax, in effect since September, has already generated $300,000 in city revenue.

Bring down the levy

Council also directed city manager Norm Gale to bring forward a series of decision packages, showing how council could bring the proposed tax levy down to as low as 1.75%.

That figure, suggested by Mauro, would mean administration would have to cut over $3M from the budget, something Gale suggested some cuts, "would not be palatable, would alarm the public," and would, as he noted, would involve major service cuts.

Council opted to receive a number of options, which would bring the budget to a levy increase of anywhere from 1.75 to 2.5 per cent.
The proposed tax increase, as first issued by city administration for the 2019 Thunder Bay budget sits at 2.95% after factoring in assessment growth. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Other options thrown onto the council floor included a 1% reduction in the Thunder Bay Fire Rescue budget, which according to Coun. Rebecca Johnson was warranted, as the number of fire-related calls have dropped.

That amendment failed, with some calling the figure arbitrary, as the Fire Rescue budget is over 90 percent based on wages.

Administration said the department will undergo a review over the next year, to determine how it can become more efficient. The closure of a fire hall was not ruled out during the discussion in council chambers.

A longer discussion also took place on what to do with Victoriaville Mall, after council noted $90,000 in capital work, mainly for heating and cooling maintenance was in the budget. Council has yet to decide if the city will keep the south-core mall. However, it was noted the work being done on the structure is minimal, with the roof and skylights continuing to leak, as it would be too costly to fix the structure.

One other proposal to reduce the budget, amongst others thrown out at random, include a mention by Coun. Aldo Ruberto to give city staff unpaid Fridays in the summer months, to cut down on staffing costs. While the motion was not formally introduced, the concept shows the lengths council was willing to go to to attempt to bring down the 2019 tax levy, which stands at 2.71 percent.


Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.